The Palestine teaching trunk

The pro-Israel community needs to fight back to prevent the hijacking of the high school classroom by BDS activists.

Students in a classroom [Illustrative] (photo credit: REUTERS)
Students in a classroom [Illustrative]
(photo credit: REUTERS)
IN THE wake of Israel’s military operation in Gaza during the summer, the pro- Israel establishment in the US is expecting a full-scale Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign aimed at de-legitimizing the Jewish state.
Israel advocacy groups are gearing up to combat pro-BDS efforts on college campuses, including student senate resolutions calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions and divestment from companies doing business in Israel.
But while our attention is understandably focused on the campuses and liberal Christian denominations, the BDS movement has come up with another insidious tactic in its assault on Israel’s legitimacy, one we ignore at our peril: anti-Israel propaganda in the guise of a high school social studies curriculum.
In many states, academic content standards for high schools are very general. They allow social studies teachers a great deal of latitude in choosing supplementary instructional materials. Who can develop these materials? Theoretically, just about anyone purporting to have some sort of education credentials – precisely the type of opening BDS activists are so adept at exploiting.
Hence, we now have the “Palestine Teaching Trunk” (PTT) possibly coming to a high school near you. A crude imitation of the teaching trunks created to give educators access to comprehensive mate - rials on the Holocaust, the PTT was developed by a retired lawyer/ teacher under the auspices of the Seattle-based Palestine Solidarity Committee. According to its website, this group supports a boycott of all Israeli goods and rejects Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.
The PTT comes complete with lesson plans, DVDs, maps of “disappearing Palestine,” an “occupation” game and selective readings, including articles by pro-BDS Israeli historians Simha Flapan and Ilan Pappe. The materials are intended to present “different perspectives,” which is true if one considers Hamas, the Electronic Intifada, former US president Jimmy Carter and anti-Zionist Israelis to represent a diversity of viewpoints.
After reviewing the materials in the PTT, here’s how Israel and Jewish Studies Professor Michael Weingrad of Portland State University described it, “The history is so distorted and selective, the amount of sheer pro-Palestinian agitprop so striking... the class lessons designed to forge students’ emotional connections with the Palestinian narrative so manipulative and one-sided, that it is difficult to imagine a student exposed to this curriculum drawing any other conclusion than that Israel is a vile, criminal regime...”
Yet, astonishingly, the PTT is being used in at least a few high schools in the state of Washington and quite likely elsewhere (but under the radar of the pro-Israel community). Even more troubling, it won praise from the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools, a well-known national organization of curriculum developers.
Last fall, the “trunk” was introduced at the annual Northwest Conference on Teaching for Social Justice, which draws hundreds of high school instructors from Washington, Oregon and California. In mid-October, the curriculum will be showcased at this year’s NWTSJ conference in Portland and also at a statewide in-service training sponsored by the Washington State Council for the Social Studies.
What can be done to prevent pro-BDS propaganda from seeping into more and more classrooms? It’s important for the Jewish community to have a presence at statewide social studies teachers’ conferences and, where practical, to promote good-quality curricula on Israel. Two excellent resources for balanced and accurate curricular materials on the Zionist movement, Arab-Israeli conflict and peace process are the nationally respected Institute for Curriculum Services in San Francisco and the Atlanta-based Center for Israel Education.
It may also be worthwhile to encourage an appropriate party– ideally, a group of non-Jewish educators – to file a complaint with the state department of education making the case that materials with a deliberate anti-Israel bias fail to comply with the state’s social studies standards. It shouldn’t be difficult to demonstrate that such materials lack the impartiality and broad range of perspectives necessary for informed, respectful discussion and analysis by students.
America’s high schools, like the nation’s universities, will produce the next generation of leaders and opinion-makers. The pro-Israel community needs to commit the resources to ensure that they don’t become incubators for anti-Israel sentiment.
 Robert Horenstein is Community Relations Director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, Oregon